Every year, we go to several events for special needs individuals, our favorite being the Jingle Bell Ball. The evening includes a feast of hot dogs, cupcakes, and popcorn, as well as face painting, a photo with and a gift from Santa and Mrs. Claus, and an appearance from Frosty and Rudolph. But the high point for us is four hours of continuous dancing.
After years of tripping the light fantastic, Cowboy has the steps down to the Cupid Shuffle, the Cha Cha Slide, the Macarena, YMCA, the Wobble, and, of course, the Chicken Dance. It's not an acceptable festivity without the Chicken Dance. It took me a while to get the Wobble down. Not the wobble that comes naturally as I walk away from the Thanksgiving table, but the dance I learned from strangers in a park one day. They were nice enough to teach me when I asked, “What is that dance you’re doing? Can you teach me?”
At parties in the special needs community, most people have no inhibitions while dancing. With no fear of embarrassment, no worries of not fitting in, and no comparing themselves to other people, they are joyful. It’s a glimpse into heaven. And when I’m with them, I feel freer; it’s right up there with dancing on a high-pollen day. On several occasions when she still lived at home, my stepdaughter, Zelda, walked into the living room and saw me dancing with abandon, once on the coffee table. She looked me in the eyes and asked, "Took Benadryl again, huh?” That’s right. Benadryl. My drug of choice while I tiptoe through the ragweed in this hot, humid town. I dance with a bit more fervor and giddiness after indulging in 25 milligrams. I relate to Will Smith’s drinking Benadryl through a straw in Hitch; relaxation is a nice side effect of treating my allergies.
In the early days of teaching Cowboy to dance, I repeatedly instructed him, “Shake your booty.” I didn’t want him to simply stand straight as a board and step side-to-side, back and forth, moving from left to right and right to left, repeatedly, while doing the “white-man overbite” (Billy Crystal in When Harry Met Sally). I wanted him to get down, get funky. You’ve never seen a booty shake quite like Cowboy’s; he has his own signature style. And often, I learn new moves from him.
One evening, he turned on our stereo and played his favorite CD at the time; it was during his Lynyrd Skynyrd phase. He started swiping one leg behind him, fully extended, then the other leg, alternating. As he kicked, he leaned forward. It reminded me of speed skating, minus the skates. Now it’s one of his dance-floor trademarks; we were impressed that he made it up on his own. With Cowboy’s photographic memory, learning new choreography doesn’t take him long. A couple of years ago, he participated in a dance routine showcase in high school. Even though he missed several weeks of rehearsing at school due to illness, he remembered the routine right away when I played the music at home for him to practice.
I never tire of watching Cowboy dance, and I’m usually his dance partner. Comments such as, “You two look great on the dance floor” leave me beaming; Cowboy always makes me look good. But when he dances with a girl other than "Mama" or with a group of his peers, my heart swells. At the Mardi Gras for Special People one year, he picked out a pretty college student and danced with her for two hours. If there's a conga line or “train” making its way around the floor, he hops right in to join and laughs the entire time. Cowboy is the Energizer bunny of the dancing world; he keeps going and going and going.
Recently, I got a text on a Thursday afternoon from my friend Flower (she works for a florist). “Homecoming mums are half-price. Do you want a garter for Cowboy?” Since we already had plans for Friday night, the night of the Homecoming football game, I hadn’t thought about a mum. Okay, I’d never thought about buying a mum. I silently berated myself; I felt like a horrible mother. In Texas, the state where wearing Homecoming mums the size of serving platters is a rock-solid tradition, that could be considered child neglect.
“Do the kids wear them to school on game day?”
“Yes,” she explained, “Casanova is wearing his tomorrow.” Casanova is one of Cowboy’s best friends and a fellow classmate who has some smooth moves with the ladies.
“I’ll be right there to purchase one!”
Flower saved my mothering career by creating a beautiful display to be worn on the top of Cowboy’s arm, with his name written in glitter down one of the ribbons and the school mascot in the middle.
I have to say, dear reader, I should also get Mom Points for making sure Cowboy bought a Homecoming Dance ticket for the next Saturday night. It took three years for me to finally do that, but I didn’t know it was a big deal. I’m pleading ignorance and the Fifth Amendment.
The night of the dance, Cowboy was charming, wearing black slacks, white dress shirt, black vest, and Looney Tunes tie.
While he waited in the car, I got out and approached a student waiting to enter. “I just wanted to see if you guys wear your mums to the dance.”
“Sure, most of us do. Are you Cowboy’s mom?”
“Yes. You know Cowboy?”
“Yes, I was in P. E. with him last year. He’s great.” I’m always surprised by how many people know my son and want to tell me how much they like him. It always brings tears to my eyes.
As the dance began, I was worried that Cowboy would feel left out among couples that were dancing together; he was dancing alone. I projected every emotion imaginable onto my son. Rejection, loneliness, sadness, alienation.
He kept dancing, oblivious to my neurotic state.
I drove Flash crazy, repeatedly asking him to intervene.
“Just walk over to that girl in the red dress and help Cowboy ask her to dance.”
“I’m not comfortable doing that.”
“It’s okay. Cowboy can use sign language, and you can interpret.”
“Why don’t you do it? You’re better at it.”
I've always bridged the communication gap for Cowboy in social situations. Flash has done it also, but it comes more naturally for me.
“It’s not like they’ll think some creepy old guy is hitting on them,” I continued to reason.
“I know, but it feels too weird.”
“It’s better than Cowboy’s mommy walking out there and helping him.”
Meanwhile, Cowboy kept dancing. At least 50 times that night, I started to get up and dance with Cowboy, like I’d always done at parties. He’d never had to dance alone. But something kept me glued to my chair. I called him over and asked if he wanted to dance with a girl.
He shook his head no, profusely.
“Are you sure?”
He was very sure. Could he be a little shy tonight? That would be a first.
Then I looked around the dance floor. There were a lot of other guys not dancing with girls. Some were dancing by themselves, putting on quite a show. Some were not dancing at all. Some were dancing in groups.
“You can dance with your friends, you know.”
For the rest of the evening, sometimes he danced with a group. Sometimes he danced alone. Sometimes he sat down and watched others dance. He was doing what others were doing. He was being a young man at a high-school dance, without my help.
I danced a few line dances and a couple of dances with Cowboy and Flash. But most of the night, I watched my son be one of the guys. When one of my favorite songs came on, I ran up behind Cowboy, who stood on the fringe of a group of his peers. Before I could ask him to dance with me, for my benefit, a gorgeous girl standing next to him tapped him on the shoulder.
“Hi Cowboy,” she said with a million-dollar smile. Then she danced with him. I slowly backed off and went back to my seat. I wasn’t needed there; Cowboy was doing fine without me.
As I stood outside waiting to leave, while Cowboy continued to party, I saw the gorgeous girl walk out.
I approached her and asked her name, adding, “You are so nice to Cowboy. Thank you.”
She looked at me as if I were a little crazy; what a perceptive young lady. “Why wouldn’t I be nice to him? He’s nice to me.”
Indeed, why wouldn’t she?
As I back further away from Cowboy as a young man, I see he is not the only one growing up. Although I still have quite a way to go. And in this time of transition, one of the best feelings in the world is to be a mother who is not as needed, but is truly loved.